Breaking down barriers

I appreciated the January/February issue of Engineering Dimensions profiling women of diverse backgrounds who are professional engineers (“25 outstanding female engineers”). Reading the inspiring stories reminded me of experiencing barriers I hadn’t even considered until I came across them myself. 

Before I became a mother, I was not conscious of some of the barriers that mothers (or parents) faced in the professional workplace. Workplace requirements for out-of-town travel, early or late meetings, changing shift work and long hours can be difficult for professional mothers, especially for those who lack access to support, such as flexible, affordable, quality childcare. While, in theory, workplaces have become more flexible—some allowing work from home, compressed work weeks, part-time work or work sharing, the actual implementation of these measures in professional workplaces seems to be low. The few employed mothers I know who are working less than full time are either self-employed or actually working more than 40 hours but being paid less than full-time salaries. I have not met a practising professional engineer who works part time. Before children, I didn’t think twice about travel or a meeting at a site at 7 a.m. Now it is only possible for me with serious advance planning.

Along with women, other groups are underrepresented in our profession. They face other barriers that we—as individuals and as members of organizations—just might not consider since we haven’t experienced them ourselves. In the Ontario Public Service, inclusive design is “designing for the full range of human diversity in ability, language, income, culture, gender, age and other characteristics.” The Ontario Human Rights Commission indicates that systemic racism is “often caused by hidden biases in policies, practices and procedures that result in unequal opportunities and outcomes for people based on race.” Perhaps the engineering profession needs to work on inclusive design to reduce the barriers that diverse individuals face in entering or remaining in the field. Eliminating barriers and uncovering hidden biases can take many shapes: anything from organizations showcasing engineers from the “full range of human diversity,” employers providing assistive technology or software, allowing an employee to work part time, and challenging subconscious biases that someone from a diverse group maybe can’t do the job as well or isn’t committed or professional. 

 So, consider what barriers there are out there for under-represented groups in engineering that you may not have thought of before. Reach out and start a dialogue with individuals from diverse groups. Be open to taking down the barriers together. Our profession has much to gain.

Janice LevangieP.Eng., Kitchener, ON